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Amid countries that need humanitarian aid, U.N. worries Yemen will be forgotten


Humanitarian needs around the world are immense. U.N. agencies, for example, are trying to raise funds to help people in Syria and Turkey recover from a devastating earthquake and help Ukrainians under attack from Russia. But aid workers say don't forget Yemen. That's a message that NPR's Michele Kelemen has been hearing from an aid worker based in the capital of Sanaa.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The World Food Programme runs one of the largest aid operations in the world in Yemen, feeding millions of people trapped in a complicated war that has devastated the country. The WFP's Richard Ragan says he knows there's a lot of competition for aid donations around the world. But he brought this message to Washington.

RICHARD RAGAN: Now is not the time to take your foot off the gas for Yemen because there's hope.

KELEMEN: There is an uneasy truce in Yemen. Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, control most of the country, with the south run by a government backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The Saudi-led airstrikes that led to many civilian deaths and widespread damage in the country have abated. The Houthis are trying to transform themselves from an armed militia to a governing body. Ragan says that's a challenge.

RAGAN: We deal with them every day, all day. And it's a grind, you know? It's not an easy process.

KELEMEN: And that's coming from someone who has a lot of experience.

RAGAN: I've been in the U.N. system working for the World Food Programme for 25 years. I was a representative in North Korea. And I have to say, this is the most challenging place I've ever worked.

KELEMEN: And the Houthis are making it even more challenging now, placing restrictions on women aid workers. The war is at a pivotal point. Saudi Arabia has tried for the past eight years to reinstall the government that the Houthis ousted. Nadwa Al-Dawsari of the Middle East Institute says the Saudis are now just tired of a war that has seen the Houthis repeatedly attack Saudi territory.

NADWA AL-DAWSARI: And their priorities have changed from defeating the Houthis, reinstating the government into Sanaa, to kind of keep the Houthis at bay and get some sort of, like, reassurances from the Houthis that the cross-border attacks will stop.

KELEMEN: But that leaves out many other groups in Yemen who, she says, oppose the Houthis.

AL-DAWSARI: They are fearful of Houthi taking control of the country. I mean, this is an extremely oppressive group.

KELEMEN: Particularly, she says, for women and minorities. So she has some advice for policymakers here in Washington.

AL-DAWSARI: I think the international community should not normalize with the Houthis. The international community should not pressure Yemenis to accept a political settlement with the Houthis where the Houthis have the upper hand, which is the case now.

KELEMEN: Aid groups have sought to keep lines open to the Houthis because they control areas where millions of people are in need. The State Department says it has no illusions about the group but is focused on tamping down the violence and keeping aid flowing. The U.S. has provided more than $1 billion for Yemen last year and is looking to others to give generously at an upcoming pledging meeting. Richard Ragan of the World Food Programme puts it this way.

RAGAN: We would have, last year, probably had to turn out the lights if the U.S. didn't show up because the Gulf states didn't contribute in a significant way.

KELEMEN: And now, with rising needs everywhere in the world, he's calling for continued support for Yemen.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "SLEEPLESS IN BERLIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.